Powerlifting vs. Weightlifting
The two big barbell sports, powerlifting and weightlifting, seem to be experiencing a rise in popularity over the last few years, so let’s take a few minutes to clear up some of the details and differences between these two approaches.
The Bottom Line
- Powerlifting trains strength, Weightlifting trains power
- Powerlifting consists of squat, bench, and deadlift
- Weightlifting consists of snatch and clean & jerk
- Both training methods rely on nervous system adaptations, and training should generally be kept to 6 reps or below and longer rest periods (2-5 minutes or more)
These two competition styles are confused quite often. Unfortunately, the actual names of each competition are terrible descriptors, and they should really switch names.
Powerlifting consists of three movements – squat, bench press, and deadlift. Athletes compete based on their total between the heaviest completed lift in each movement. Powerlifting is technically a strength competition – the goal is to move the highest amount of weight possible, regardless of how slow that weight moves.
Weightlifting (not the same as “lifting weights”), or Olympic weightlifting, consists of two movements – the snatch and the clean & jerk. Athletes compete based on their total of the heaviest successful lift in each movement. Weightlifting is actually a textbook display of an athlete’s power (force x velocity).
Powerlifting is an exhibit of an athlete’s force production capabilities, or strength. This is the amount of force you can produce (or the amount of weight you can lift) just above zero miles per hour – any slower and you wouldn’t be lifting it. On the other end of this spectrum, or the other end of the force-velocity curve, is absolute velocity – the fastest you can move without any resistance (or with very little resistance). This is like the difference between a max bench press (force) and a baseball pitch (velocity), or a max squat vs a 100m sprint.
Weightlifting is an exhibit of an athlete’s ability to produce force quickly, or to be explosive (strength plus speed). Weightlifting does rely heavily on the ability to produce force, but to be successful an athlete must be able to produce that force at a high velocity.
Training for each of these sports is intense, especially if you want to make it to a competitive level. Most people will be more familiar with powerlifting movements since they’re used in a lot of other lifting programs as well (bodybuilding, for instance). During the first year or two of powerlifting many people will see pretty rapid gains in strength. Continuing to improve after a few years of lifting is where things get tough, and progress slows to a crawl as a lifter nears their genetic potential. Learning the bench, squat, and deadlift are fairly straightforward, but there are always technique tweaks that can be made to improve each lift. It is by no means a simple sport to learn.
Weightlifting is quite complex from the get go. Just getting into the catch positions (front squat and overhead squat) are pretty tough to learn. The process of moving a loaded barbell smoothly from the ground into those positions is a process that can take a very long time to learn. It can take new weightlifters years just to learn to perform these movements correctly, and that’s before they can even start to really overload the movements.
Here’s an idea of the numbers competitive powerlifters and weightlifters put up for national qualifying totals.
- 125 lb female – 650 lb total
- 182 lb male – 1350 lb total
- Approximate relative weight lifted – 1.5-2 x bodyweight on bench, 2-3 x bodyweight squat/deadlift
- 125 lb female – 347 lb total
- 185 lb male – 616 lb total
- Approximate relative weight lifted – 1.5 x bodyweight snatch, 2 x bodyweight clean & jerk
- Squat – Lifter must lower the hip crease below the top of the knee before returning to a full standing position
- Bench Press – bar must touch the lifter’s chest/abdominal area and then be lifted to full extension of the elbows
- Deadlift – bar is lifted off the ground until the lifter’s knees and hips are fully extended, and the shoulder are pulled back
- Snatch – barbell moves from the ground and is caught overhead with fully extended elbows in one motion, and the lifter must stand fully upright to finish the lift
- Clean – the bar is moved from the ground and is caught on top of the shoulders/clavicles (front squat position), and the lifter stands upright
- Jerk – the barbell is moved from the shoulders into an overhead position by bending and extending the knees followed by extending the arms into full extension, then the lifter must stand upright with the weight still held overhead
Training for each sport can get complicated, and those details beyond the scope of this article. However, powerlifting and weightlifting techniques are still used for many other sports or types of athletes who are not seeking to become professional lifters.
Powerlifting techniques are used to increase an athlete’s strength, or their maximum potential to produce force. For instance, squatting is a staple of pretty much any strength and conditioning program for competitive athletes. Building strength in the squat improves an athlete’s ability to run fast and jump high which is applicable to virtually every sport.
Weightlifting techniques are used to increase and athlete’s power, or their ability to produce force quickly (be explosive). The difference between weightlifting and training for most sports is that most athletes do not need to pull weight from the floor. This means most other athletes rely on hang cleans, high pulls, power snatches, etc. There is a lot of confusion with this terminology, so let’s clear that up as well.
- Hang clean or Hang snatch – “hang” refers to the start position of the exercise, and a hang clean/snatch is anything that starts above the ground (although these are usually initiated from a position where the bar is above the knees)
- Power clean or Power snatch – “power” refers to the landing position of the movement, and a power clean/snatch is caught in a position where the thighs stay above parallel and the hips do not drop into a full front squat or overhead squat (typically the landing position is closer to a quarter squat)
These techniques still allow an athlete to be explosive, but the hang and power positions more closely resemble the body positions that athlete will experience on the field or court (it’s more sport specific).
Training strength and training power both utilize a low number of reps (fewer than 6) and a relatively long rest period (2-5 minutes). The real adaptations occur to the nervous system (rather than to muscles or metabolic systems), and it is key to have adequate nervous system recovery before completing consecutive sets. You’ll often see powerlifting movements used for hypertrophy or bodybuilding (which is still an acceptable, safe method) where rep ranges are taken closer to 10-12 and rest periods are shortened to 60-90 seconds. You may also see weightlifting movements used at higher rep ranges with shorter rest periods in an attempt to improve conditioning. While these movements are undeniably effective at raising the heart rate and challenging metabolic energy systems, there are better, safer ways to challenge those systems. As a general rule, weightlifting movements should be reserved for training power only, thus the rep range should never raise above 5-6 and there should be plenty of rest in between sets. A set of 20 snatches will definitely get you breathing heavy, but you don’t want to be holding a barbell over your head when you’re worn out.
Powerlifting and weightlifting are very demanding sports, especially for those athletes who actually want to compete at a high level. However, they both offer training techniques that can be utilized by a wide variety of athletes and exercisers.
Ryan Keller, MS, CSCS, NSCA-CPT
NSCA Texas State Director
Texas Christian University